Civil War Ancestors:
Ours Whether We Understand Them or Not
by M.L. Faunce
Saying, "you can't deny your history," Janet Owens, Anne Arundel County executive, stepped out of her public self and into her private self to honor a Confederate private and ancestor. Owens recently joined relatives and others at the unveiling of an eight-foot bronze statue of Private Benjamin Welch Owens placed along Route 408 in Lothian, in tribute to the young soldier's heroics in the Battle of Stephenson's Depot.
Honoring the local Confederate hero who returned home from war to Anne Arundel County to live out his life not far from where the sculpture stands might also be an act of courage. Some hearing about the tribute disagreed with the recognition based on their sensitivity to slavery as a cornerstone of the Confederate cause.
Yet, all of us, if we dig deep enough into our own history, could be called upon to explain the actions of ancestors whose motives we may have never know. That happened to me while researching my family history. I have the facts, but the motivations of a great, great grandfather on my father's side are purely guesswork.
I recall my reaction as a satisfied researcher on the darkened fourth floor of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., reeling through rolls of microfilm, discovering that both of my father's great grandfathers had fought for the Union during the Civil War. Thomas Jerman joined the 2nd District of Columbia Infantry and served, not far from his birthplace in Fairfax, Virginia, as an orderly to Union General Slough. The other, William Henry Harrison Wysong, joined the Union as a "volunteer substitute" in Baltimore, receiving compensation from one who chose not to fight.
Carefully noting the record numbers, I requested the original documents and soon poured over muster records that revealed color of eyes (blue for one, gray for the other), height, complexion, details of service seen, duties performed.
Neither could read nor write. Death certificates showed that both had been buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and climbing the steep hill that overlooks the city of Washington across the Potomac, I pondered the standard granite gravestones. But it was not the end of the story or my research.
Locating old newspapers in a Fairfax County library, I discovered that Thomas' brother, Middleton Garner Jerman had risen to some distinction in the Confederate Army. "Brother against brother," I mused. These brothers on their different paths were separated not merely by different colleges or careers but by a gulf I would never really understand no matter how much I wished. After fighting on separate sides in a war that tore our nation in half, both returned home to Fairfax to farm.
Later, and purely by chance, I discovered another piece of family history. On September 17, 1862, when Union and Confederate Forces met face to face along the banks of Antietam, in the most violent clash of the Civil War - in all American history for that matter - William Henry Harrison Wysong, a private in the Confederate Army, had deserted his company. So WHHW fought (or ran) for both the South and the North.
"I think the more we talk about it and explore the good and the bad, the healthier it is for everyone," Janet Owens said. To many - Civil War buffs, amateur historians and average citizens weighing in on delicate topics this war engenders - issues are black and white. Despite postmodern times, we still have as much discomfort with ourselves as with history.
For me, Owens' words ring true and might well be remembered when we face inevitable differences. But then I have a little family history in mind that I can never truly know about for sure, and - like Owens - seek to honor in my own way.
Note: This summer and fall, re-enactors will portray Civil War battles that occurred in 1864 and conduct walking tours of battlefields. See Civil War Re-enactments in this week's Good Bay Times. To learn more, call the Information Hot Line - 908/903-1064 - or visit www.TheHistoryNet.com.
| Issue 31 |
Volume VII Number 31
August 5-11, 1999
New Bay Times
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